Tips for effective career development programs

If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times: Your people are your greatest asset, and you need to develop them with as much care as you would your systems and products. Yet, career development programs are often given short shrift by senior executives with deadlines and budgets on their minds.

Members of the CIO Executive Council, a professional organization of CIOs founded by CIO (U.S.) magazine, told us about their career development programs and what makes them work. Here are some guidelines for getting the most out of your human investments.

1. Walk the halls.

Senior management meetings are not the right place to glean the career aspirations of your staff. “My organization is five deep. If I waited for the chain of command, I would never get the information I do by just asking people about their careers,” says Samantra Sengupta, CIO of the The Scotts Co. “I walk the halls a lot and sit down with people at all levels to understand their needs and desires.”

Based in part on staff feedback, Sengupta decided to split what was solely a managerial career path into three separate paths: traditional management, heavy technical competency with light management and architecture with no management responsibilities. The paths carry similar compensation plans but allow each person to do what he does best.

Before you walk the halls, make sure you clearly understand how much flexibility HR will allow when setting up a new career development program, cautions Sengupta. “If you encourage people on your staff to give you a data dump about their career, they may believe that you will act on their wishes,” he says. “You have to know what you can and cannot do before you initiate the discussion.”

2. Create an integrated job model.

When Jim Burdiss became CIO of Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. in January 2002, there were few titles on his staff other than “systems analyst.” So he put Keith Fehd, director of applications development and support, in charge of developing a program that would define paths for progression along four distinct disciplines: applications, infrastructure, business operations and management.

“The program is successful because it integrates job titles with salaries, skill requirements, merit increases and our annual review process,” says Burdiss. “We now have a much clearer view into the skills of our organization, and our people truly understand their growth potential.”

3. Launch a publicity campaign.

Just like any major initiative, a new career development program needs a timely and effective communication plan. “It took us 14 months to build our integrated model,” says Smurfit-Stone’s Fehd. “If we had publicized it early or not well enough, we would have raised expectations or created uncertainty about a pretty sensitive subject.”

4. Promote leaders carefully.

Successful project leaders do not necessarily make great managers, says Linda Brigance, CIO of FedEx Asia Pacific. “People tend to look at great projects and want to promote their leaders,” she says. “But we need to pay close attention to how their leadership skills translate in tougher situations. Are they as successful at guiding and motivating their teammates when the going gets tough?”

5. Incorporate business training.

Burdiss at Smurfit-Stone hired an outside consultant to design a “Business 101” course specifically for the IT team. With sections on the supply chain, supply and demand planning, marketing, budgeting and financials, the business course has gone a long way toward helping the IT people at Smurfit-Stone understand the business they support.

6. Use cross-training.

When Barbara Kunkel, CIO of Nixon Peabody LLP, is out of the office, one of her direct reports is acting CIO. Her managers regularly facilitate department meetings, entry-level technical support specialists team up with seasoned staff, and office services employees intern in the IT department during the summer months. “Cross-training is a great career development tool,” says Kunkel. “But it needs to be a planned activity with clearly thought-out goals, and it should provide workers with continued job enrichment opportunities once they return to their routine duties.”

The case: Moving to an open source environment with Linux

Council member: Marc West, SVP and CIO, Electronic Arts Inc.

The challenge: Electronic Arts’ Web site,, had grown into the fourth-largest computer games destination on the Web, with 10 million visitors playing a combined 4.5 billion minutes a month. However, as the site grew, technology spending was a disproportionately large hit on the company’s bottom line. Each time EA wanted to increase the number of online game players, it had to purchase more Sun Unix servers for its Equinox-hosted data centre and license more software.

With the recent launch of EA’s new Club Pogo premium games, EA added another 360,000 paying subscribers with plans to double the community in the near future. West was faced with two challenges: Deliver a high-performance, high-availability online experience — and do so at a low initial and ongoing cost.

West believed that switching to a “commodity computing” architecture — using open-source Linux server software on Intel boxes instead of running Unix on Sun Microsystems Inc. machines — could help EA cut its technology costs for online Web games. “Lintel” servers are “cheap, fast and disposable; investment levels are less; and if they burn out or need to be refreshed, you can manage against a shorter and less expensive asset lifecyle,” West says. And with the right architecture, they can be scaled up or down in response to business-driven demand.

The execution: It took four months to develop and pilot a Web site for game players to beta test. “The amount of time and level of effort was no more but no less complicated than any other technology change that a company might do,” West says. “Most people would say, ‘It would take me forever; I can never leave my current environment.’ While it’s a change, it’s not that complicated.”

Lessons learned

— Choose a vendor that has experience doing these types of re-architecting efforts. “Each vendor had a cookbook that it wanted us to follow, but none of the cookbooks fit what we were trying to accomplish,” West says, adding that a consortium type of approach would have been more helpful.

— Allow some time to fully investigate the legal issues surrounding Linux and The SCO Group Inc. lawsuits. Electronic Arts did and was satisfied that it was safe to move ahead with such a large Red Hat deployment, although EA still keeps tabs on legal issues.

— Have someone on staff with a deep knowledge of Linux in a distributed-computing environment rather than relying on consultants for this know-how.

— Make sure you have won the hearts and minds of your applications and engineering teams. “You do cross a few career paths when you do this,” West says. By asking people to switch from the “monolithic computing” world to the distributed commodity computing world, West says, “you’re asking people to make a significant change in how they earn their bread and butter.”

— Don’t believe vendors that say they have a turnkey solution. One size does not fit all even if you buy all of their components and set up the system the way they want.

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